The ever-perceptive and provocative columnist, Richard Cohen, is an example of the two-sided coin of anonymous sources. They can be the heroic whistleblower or the mischievous slanderer. Cohen once described the Washington leaker as “a poltergeist with a phone” who, for good or evil, “disappears into the Washington souk, an exotic marketplace where information is traded, character is assassinated and the air is redolent with hypocrisy.” Other critics of anonymous sources have agreed, in growing numbers since Robert Novak’s highly questionable outing of Valerie Plame.

Yet, recently Mr. Cohen wrote, “A quality newspaper is a repository of leaks … leaks are an important way one part of the government can communicate with another.”

Huh? He explains: “An assistant Cabinet secretary cannot pick up the phone and call the president. His boss won’t let him … This is where leaks come in. The low-level guy leaks the information to a newspaper and the president reads about it at breakfast.” This, Mr. Cohen claims, is a critical feature of newspapers.

Mr. Cohen knows how Washington works. The ship of state leaks from the top, JFK once remarked. But the savvy members of the press — Mr. Cohen surely is one — need to decide whether they are for or against anonymous sourcing and what the standards should be. When former Time magazine Editor Norman Pearlstein recommended limiting the use of confidential sources, he was pilloried by his colleagues.

Since whistleblowers usually do not fare well after they’ve blown their whistles, and since the sad and hypocritical dance of anonymous sourcing has been outed by respectable and honorable members of the press — Michael Kinsley, Geneva Overhalter, Hodding Carter, Max Frankel and others — the time has come to set standards. An old cynic once noted that in Washington, the only standard is the double standard. We need to alter that position on this important subject.

Ronald Goldfarb’s new book, IN CONFIDENCE: When to Protect Secrecy and When to Require Disclosure, will be published by Yale University Press in March 2009; it includes a chapter on this subject.